Background

Monday, August 20, 2012

Excess Baggage

Her name was Julie Ruzinski, and in 1976 she befriended me and Mrs. Chatterbox while we were backpacking through Greece. Julie, a blond blue-eyed Aussie, was enjoying a last fling before settling down and marrying. Her fiancé was waiting for her in Melbourne. It seemed odd that she was traveling alone, but Mrs. C. and I didn’t pry.


In addition to speaking with a delightful Australian accent, Julie also spoke fluent Italian. When the time came to move on to Italy the three of us joined ranks and boarded a rusty tramp steamer for Brindisi. Julie wasn’t backpacking like we were; she was weighed down by a regular suitcase and a larger one she struggled to carry—this in the days before luggage came with wheels. Prompted by an outdated sense of chivalry, I reached for the big suitcase and was soon lugging it from city to city. It couldn’t have been heavier had it been filled with rocks.

I remember lugging that suitcase onto train platforms and hoisting it onto luggage racks on stops from Brindisi to Rome. One day in the Eternal City the three of us paused near the Spanish Steps and ordered a bottle of Chianti at a trattoria. Somewhere around the second bottle my tongue loosened up and I asked, “So Julie, what have you got in that suitcase? Bricks?”


Her face turned crimson and she looked away. Obviously, she didn’t want to answer. I felt bad for asking and changed the subject. That evening after dinner, we were relaxing in our cramped pensione when someone knocked on our door. It was Julie from down the hall. “Come over to my room,” she said. “I have something I want to show you.”


We trooped down the hall to her room. I noticed the big suitcase on her sagging bed.


“I have a story to tell,” Julie said, her voice a soft whisper.


There were no chairs so we sat on the bed, surrounding the suitcase.


“With a name like Ruzinski it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my father is Polish. Five years before I was born he was branded a dissident by the Communist government and thrown into prison where he remained for four years. Each day he awoke thinking it was his last. One day he was dragged to the prison administrator’s office and told he would be released from prison on condition that he leave Poland and never return. If he did so, he would face a firing squad.”


At this point in her story Julie reached over and ran her fingers over the suitcase’s smooth exterior.


“My father had been in prison four years and hadn’t been permitted to send word of his whereabouts to friends or family. Now he was escorted to a ship bound for Rotterdam without even being able to say goodbye. My father traveled to Australia, married my mother and built a successful business. For twenty years he has tried to contact his destitute parents and cousins, but his letters are intercepted along with the money he sends. As you can imagine, life in Poland right now is extremely difficult. Six months ago, after years of failure and frustration at not being able to help his family, Dad received word from the Polish government. One Ruzinski, anyone except Dad, would be permitted to enter Poland, alone, for a brief visit. I volunteered to go, but was informed I could not bring money into the country.”


She unlatched the suitcase and opened the lid.


When the shock wore off I nearly burst out laughing; I couldn’t believe what I saw. The suitcase was stuffed with…tampons. My initial reaction was, Holy shit! This girl must have one hell of a period. The suitcase was also stuffed with ballpoint pens. It was one of the few times in my life when I was speechless.


Mrs. Chatterbox said, “Julie, I don’t understand. Why tampons? Why ballpoint pens? Does your family need these?”


Julie explained, “In four days my one week visa will admit me into Poland. I’ll be checked to see if I’m carrying a large sum of money; if I am it will be confiscated. That’s why I’m bringing this suitcase. These items are not considered contraband but they are worth their weight in gold on the Polish black market. This suitcase will feed our family for a year.”


A few days later we exchanged addresses and said goodbye to Julie at the Roma Termini, where she caught a train to Warsaw. We were sad to see her go, having quickly grown fond of her. Mrs. C. wrote her after we returned to the States. We wondered if she’d made it home safely, married her fiancé.


We never heard from her again.

47 comments:

  1. Wow- what a turn of events! An amazing story, and I, too would love to know the outcome.

    On another note, Brindisi brings back bad memories for me...when I was a teenager and stupid...something about customs...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow, I'd never realized tampons and ballpoint pens could be so valuable. Or heavy. Hopefully she made it back to Australia all right. You could probably look for her on Google or something.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I always look forward to your posts.

    I have never traveled further than Canada, If I had, maybe I would be more interesting. I guess I will just have to travel vicariously through your stories.

    Cranky

    ReplyDelete
  4. sometimes its best not to find out how the story ends - that way you can imagine the best for her and her family

    ReplyDelete
  5. Amazing story. I wonder if she made it back to Oz!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oh no, not knowing that she accomplished her goal is like falling off a cliff and stopping partway down and remaining there. Yeah, a cliff hanger. Have you written again?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I wonder how much a tampon fetches in Poland. That is totally bizarre...as a side note, I wonder why they were so heavy????

    ReplyDelete
  8. Did she make it back out of Poland? How sad a noble quest she was on.

    ReplyDelete
  9. What a fascinating story and a marvelously interesting woman. I would love to meet you in real life, sir, and sit around with a drink and listen to you regale me with the tales of all of your travels.

    ReplyDelete
  10. What a creative and smart woman. I hope that her life went well after you parted company and I am dismayed that you lost touch with her! Another great story.

    ReplyDelete
  11. My brother and I once had the same idea with American-made jeans...

    I hope she and her family are well.

    Pearl

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'm sure most of this is true? Okay, maybe it's all true, but it sure is a great post.

    Have a terrific day. :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. Terrific! But that last sentence leaves many questions. Wow! When are you going to publish these stories in a book? I'll line up for a copy.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Wow, Stephen, that could be made into a screen play. Good story. Mindy

    ReplyDelete
  15. What an AMAZING story! I want your life!

    ReplyDelete
  16. ahah ahah! There were thin sheets of gold lining the suitcase. That was worth the tramping around with bics and tampons. What a story! She most likely became an entreprenurial importer of odd necessities needed in beleagured foreign countries!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Makes one wonder -- those Communist governments were capable of some rotten tricks.

    ReplyDelete
  18. What an awesome post. I both adore solo travel (and hope to continue to break the strangeness of it so women can explore the world) and meeting fascinating people. Wouldn't it be interesting to find her somehow and see how she is.

    ReplyDelete
  19. This just solidifies the fact that I believe you to be one of the nicest guys on the planet. Who else would shlup around a heavy suitcase for some Aussie that you really didn't know? Me being the suspicious type would think she was hauling drugs or guns. Even as you said tampons and ink pens I am still thinking she is hiding something like cocaine.

    WTH...there was a black market for tampons and ink pens????? I would of never guessed that one. That is one strange story.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Wow. WHAT a story. It's true that good tampons are damn hard to come by in certain countries, so it kind of makes sense. But pens? Jeesh.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I wish I could have seen your faces when that suitcase was opened!

    ReplyDelete
  22. That is quite a story! Thanks for the comment on my blog and for leading me here. :)

    ReplyDelete
  23. You disappoint me sir. After learning of a get rich scheme you did not begin an import export business with Poland and other similar countries lacking high value products.

    For a brief moment I thought... you know. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  24. I have so much in common with your Julie. We had the same kind of struggles trying to send money and/or goods to Latvia. Most of the time they were confiscated. But, every now and then we'd find strange and unusual ways of getting stuff to our friends and relatives. Must admit though, although I have retained my Aussie accent, I've never thought of it as 'delightful.'

    ReplyDelete
  25. Truth. Stranger than fiction.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Wow - great story, well told, and no way to find out the ending.

    I had a summer job in 1977, working in a hotel. One of my co-workers was a young Polish woman who was visiting her parents in Germany (they had managed to get out of Poland a few years before). The only way the Polish government allowed her to visit her parents was to leave her 2-year old daughter behind, to ensure her return.

    I remember when she was getting ready for traveling back to Poland, she carefully planned what she wanted to take back with her. I remember tampons and deodorant soap were among the items she was heavily stocking up on.

    ReplyDelete
  27. what a moving story and so well told. i hope Julie made it home and made a happy life with her fiancée.

    ReplyDelete
  28. You have lead quite an adventurous life and I enjoy reading about your travels and experiences. This particular one is heartwarming with the challenge the young lady faced and sad because you don't know how it turned out.
    Isn't it funny what objects are valuable in other countries.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Great story! Well told! We have so much to learn. We tend to look at the obvious when if we look deeper there's much more.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I had a gal I wrote to in Russia, (Soviet Union), and she had said not to send things like money for that reason, that the postal workers would take it as they were inspecting. I wrote to her after that, and never received a reply, but I suspect she might just have been bored with my writing... I hope that her... inventory... was well received, and that she ended up happy.

    Cat

    ReplyDelete
  31. Wow what an interesting story, it would have been great to hear from her again to catch up with how things turned out for her.

    funny how her suitcase full of goods were worth more than a bag of money--go figure.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Nice story Stephen! You've had an interesting life;)

    ReplyDelete
  33. What a neat story. It's amazing how things we quite often take for granted are prized in other countries. For instance, Icelanders were crazy about any food which was red. They positively LOVED Big Red chewing gum. I thought they would also like red wax lips. So, when my Navy command held a community fair, I ordered a LOT of red wax lips. Popular? Not so much.
    Bottom line: I ended up with a lot of wax lips.
    On an unrelated note: "Brindisi" and "tramp steamer" in the same sentence. Perfect. The place is a dump. Although it does have the end of the Appian Way and some big ass stone rudder monument. Apparently, Brindisi was a big deal back in the day. Now? Well, it's as popular as wax lips in Iceland.

    ReplyDelete
  34. i was expecting something similar but not pens and tampons

    ReplyDelete
  35. Amazing story Stephen, pity we'll never know how things went for her assuming they let her leave.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Wow! How cool, lovely story! :) I wonder how things turned out for her as well.

    ReplyDelete
  37. oh my! what an incredible story!!! and what a cush life I have in comparison.

    ReplyDelete
  38. And if any of those ball point pens happened to leak, well no problem.

    ReplyDelete
  39. The stories you tell are really incredible! Julie's story reminds us to be more grateful for the life we enjoy. Really, we can never take anything for granted.

    ReplyDelete
  40. What an unusual story! I though you were going to say the tampon tubes were stuffed with hundred dollar bills!

    ReplyDelete
  41. Luggage Stores In Nyc

    Great and memorable story with traditional lugging. I think, actually this is a suitcase. This kind of products are perfect for travel. After all thank you for sharing your story with us.

    ReplyDelete
  42. wow, that is quite a story. we really have no idea the history that people carry with them through life.

    ReplyDelete
  43. I see the greatest contents on your blog and I extremely love reading them.
    Excess Baggage Shipping

    ReplyDelete